Don’t have a cow, Canada: Earls takes your beef seriously

Dining by Aidan Morgan

Ethical cow

On Wednesday April 27, Earls Restaurant tweeted twice: the first tweet to celebrate Admin Professionals Day, the second to shoot itself in the foot with a cattle bolt.

“This is really big,” they stated. “Earls is the first chain in North America to source all its beef from Certified Humane® farms.”

The text was accompanied by a link to a page that detailed Earls commitment to “conscious sourcing” of beef raised without the use of antibiotics, hormones or steroids.

The page did not immediately mention that Earls was sourcing its Certified Humane® beef from a single U.S. supplier, an entity called Creekstone Farms.

Response to Earls decision was immediate. Canadian cattle farmers, politicians and consumers posted responses ranging from disappointed to baffled to plain angry. Alberta ranchers wanted to know why Earls had apparently ignored them at a time when the oil industry was shedding dollars like a fake fur jacket in a dryer.

Oh yeah, and meanwhile, Fort McMurray was burning.

Earls’ rationale was simple: Canadian beef suppliers couldn’t supply the restaurant with enough humanely raised meat to satisfy its ethically demanding customer base. Our customers, Earls claimed, want humane beef, and they want two million pounds of it annually.

With two million pounds of beef allocated to Earl’s per year, it’s clear that Creekstone Farms isn’t the family ranch operation that its name would suggest. Creekstone is a massive operation that supplies beef under various names to restaurant chains and supermarkets across the United States. They’re owned by the much less folksy Sun Capital Partners, an investment firm that enjoys “identifying companies’ untapped potential and leveraging its deep operational and financial resources to transform results”, and something called “corporate carve-outs”. No wonder they acquired a cattle company.

Creekstone is also willing to certify its beef harvesting as halal, which has pleased observant Muslim foodies but angered people who see scary scimitar-wielding Calormen lurking in the shadows. When Earls Restaurant recently clarified on Facebook that “Creekstone Farms offers a halal certified product, but that is not what is served in our restaurants,” PC Party of Alberta (former) member Craig Chambers responded “So now Earls supports terrorists as well! Wow!”

Chambers issued a confusing clarification about paying taxes to Saudi Arabia, offered a non-apology involving Smurfs, and promptly resigned from the party.

Chamber’s highly lateral leap in logic is only the most prominent instance of the Islamophobia that runs through the western Canadian conservatism, but it’s there, alive and well, and jumping out from its gopher hole at the slightest provocation.

Questions also began to percolate about the value of the Certified Humane® label, from agricultural writers denouncing it as a scam and others suggesting that Alberta beef producers already follow many of the practices specified by the organization behind the certification.

(If any readers want to dive into the Watership Down-style rabbit warren of the Certified Humane® controversy, start with and launch your virtual barque from there into the Sea of Google. I will be here waving at you from the Shores of Remaining Sanity.)

By May 4, Earls realized the magnitude of its error. A profoundly uncomfortable Mo Jessa, president of Earls, appeared in a short video to apologize to everyone on Earth and promise that the company would work with Canadian suppliers to bring Canadian beef back into their restaurants.

In the meantime, though, they would continue to sell Creekstone Farms beef.

“But Aidan, What Does It Taste Like?”

Of course, the ultimate test is taste: is the Creekstone Farms beef that Earls serves worth the months of preparation, testing, research, marketing that preceded it?

I took two of my Knights of Appetite (including the Hungry Friar) with me to an unidentified Saskatchewan Earls to try out their beef. Even though the company has backtracked over the last few days and promised to build Canadian beef back into their supply chain, you wouldn’t know it from the marketing material. A sign at the door proclaimed “It tastes good to do the right thing,” accompanied by an image of a glistening and seasoned cut of sirloin. Inside there were flyers with the menu bearing the slogan, “It comes from a good place.”

The marketing materials felt out of place, like the streamers at a wedding reception where the bride already ran off with the best man.

Undaunted, I ordered the 6 oz. sirloin ($21) rare, declining the Cajun spice add-on to gauge the flavour. You know, of beef. I added sauteed mushrooms to my order, just in case the protein portion went down in flames.

After one bite, I was desperately wishing for some Cajun spice. Or any spice. The texture was acceptable but the flavour was bland as minute steak with an unpleasant metallic aftertaste, as if they’d swiped a penny across the flesh.

The next night, I went to a steakhouse and had an admittedly more expensive but vastly superior chunk of aged Canadian beef. With a satiny red interior, buttery texture and that unassuming but incredibly satisfying flavour under a layer of char and light seasoning, it reminded me in an instant how great Canadian beef can be.

Let’s hope Earls gets that good stuff into their restaurants soon.